Russian journal, 1836–1866
Founded by the poet Aleksandr Pushkin in 1836, Sovremennik (The contemporary) became one of the most successful and influential liberal journals of 19th-century Russia.
Like the other so-called “thick journals” of the period, Sovremennik appealed to an increasingly broad readership by offering a mixture of contents, ranging from political essays to literary reviews and essays, to works of poetry and imaginative prose. Its political slant was always of a liberal, “Westernizing” tendency—that is, it advocated adapting to Russian society Western intellectual currents and the basic position of Western reform movements—but after 1856, when the radical critic Nikolai Chernyshevskii assumed the primary duties as editor, Sovremennik became the vehicle for political writings of the extreme socialist left.
Sovremennik went through three major phases in its 30-year career. The first of these, from 1836 to 1846, was its least successful, as the journal lost circulation and influence due to a combination of ineffective editorship and oppressive literary censorship.
Although Pushkin had conceived of Sovremennik as a liberal political literary journal, he died after the journal’s first year, having produced only four issues. After his death and the political scandal surrounding it the journal became even more subject to scrutiny by the censorship department of Tsar Nicholas I. The editorship passed to the hands of Piotr Pletnev, Pushkin’s good friend and a professor of literature at the University of St. Petersburg. Under Pletnev Sovremennik became a strictly literary journal containing memoirs, short stories, and lyric poetry. Although by publishing some of these texts in Sovremennik—particularly the works of Nikolai Gogol’ and of the poet Fedor Tiutchev, as well as the posthumous works of Pushkin—Pletnev was performing an important service for the Russian reading public, on the whole he and his editors were offering fare not to the taste of Russian readers, who had outgrown (as they thought) lyric poetry and demanded instead greater realism from their writers. In 1846 Pletnev sold the journal to Nikolai Nekrasov and Ivan Ivanovich Panaev, under whose editorship Sovremennik became the most influential liberal journal in Russia.
Nekrasov’s acquisition of Sovremennik (Panaev’s contribution was essentially financial) launched the journal’s second period of ever-increasing influence and financial success, which lasted from 1847 to 1855. The first issue under Nekrasov (January 1847) contained contributions by the best-known names of Russian literature in the 19th century: poetry by Nekrasov, prose by Ivan Turgenev and Fedor Dostoevskii, political writings of Aleksandr Herzen, and literary criticism by Vissarion Belinskii. Subsequent issues would contain early works of such writers as Lev Tolstoi and Ivan Goncharov; almost every significant figure in Russian literature of this period appeared on the pages of Sovremennik under Nekrasov’s editorship.
The tone of Sovremennik in these years was heavily influenced by the legacy of Belinskii, the leading social and literary critic of the 18408. Indeed, Belinskii had been involved in Nekrasov and Panaev’s original plans to take over Pletnev’s dwindling Sovremennik as a move to undermine, or at least to counterbalance, the influence of the primary Westernizer journal, Otechestvennye Zapiski (Fatherland notes): Belinskii had been its editor and main contributor, yet by 1846 he wished to break from it and establish a rival journal. Before his death in 1848 Belinskii published in Sovremennik two important articles surveying Russian literature in the years 1846 and 1847.
Despite the participation of Russia’s foremost writers and liberal-minded thinkers, the material published in Sovremennik was severely restricted by the censorship committee until the death of Tsar Nicholas I in 1855. The role of official censorship in tsarist Russia—no less than in the Soviet Union cannot be underestimated. After the revolutionary movements that swept Europe in 1848, censorship in Russia interfered with all publications to an even greater extent than before. As a result, the editors of Sovremennik had to be satisfied with publishing mild social criticism as it appeared in works of fiction; the most talented author of this type of writing was Turgenev (whose Zapiski okhotnika [1852.; A Sportsman’s Notebook] and other short fiction were published in Sovremennik in their entirety), although the works of the young Dostoevskii and the translated works of Charles Dickens also served this purpose.
After Nicholas’ death and the ascension to the throne of his more liberal-minded son, the “Reformer-Tsar” Alexander II, censorship in Russia enjoyed a respite, albeit a brief one. With Alexander’s reign the third phase of Sovremennik’s activity began, characterized by the radical socialist politics of its primary editors and contributors, Chernyshevskii and Nikolai Dobroliubov. Nekrasov was still the editor-in-chief of the journal, and indeed remained so until it was shut down in 1866; however, after 1856 he increasingly entrusted the editorial duties to his young protégé, Chernyshevskii, whose willingness and ability to work full-time for the journal had greatly impressed the older man as much as his critical abilities.
With Chernyshevskii’s editorship the tone of Sovremennik changed tremendously. A particularly prevalent social issue which was aired in the journal’s pages was that of Russian serfdom. On the eve of the emancipation of the serfs, Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov, and their followers refused to support the Tsar’s reform efforts and persistently published articles comparing serfdom in Russia to slavery in the United States; it is significant in this regard that the first Russian translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the 1857 issues of Sovremennik. Typically, when the Emancipation Decree was finally passed in 1861 there was no mention of it at all in Sovremennik: Nekrasov as well as Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov realized that the Tsar and his ministers had done the minimum they thought possible, and that it was the landowners and not the peasants who benefited from the “reform.”
Although a large part of the journal was still devoted to belles-lettres, the literature of this period had a strong and undisguised dimension of social and political criticism, earning the label “literature of accusation” (oblichitel’naia literature). Although the more moderate liberal writers such as Turgenev and Lev Tolstoi continued to publish in its pages, clashes over politics became increasingly frequent. In 1858 a final break occurred between the liberals and radicals. Although as a result of this conflict Sovremennik lost many of its most celebrated contributors, its profits increased tremendously as the Russian reading public proved eager to read about the issues addressed in this newly radical journal. Turgenev’s novel Nakanune (1860; On the Eve) was published in Sovremennik, yet the critical review of it by Dobroliubov, a dogmatic article entitled “Kogda zhe pridet nastoiashchii den’?” (1860; “When Will the Real Day Come?”), which has since become a classic of Russian revolutionary writing, so alarmed Turgenev that he attempted to have it withdrawn. When Chernyshevskii published the review anyway, which deliberately misinterpreted Turgenev’s novel in order to cast a more revolutionary reading on it, Turgenev broke with the editors of Sovremennik for good.
Thanks to the radical politics of their contributions, Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov’s Sovremennik suffered increasing pressure from the censor. In 1862. it was shut down for eight months when Chernyshevskii was arrested for inciting student and peasant disturbances. Finally in 1866, after its editors printed Chernyshevskii’s revolutionary novel Chto delat’? (1863; What Is to Be Done?), which he wrote in prison, Sovremennik was closed down.
The significance of Sovremennik for 19th-century Russian literature and social thought cannot be overstressed. In its 30 years of circulation the major liberal debates and ideas— not to mention some of the most important works of Russian literature—were aired in its pages. The well-known historical division of intellectual “fathers and sons” (made famous in Turgenev’s novel of that name) is best documented by reading Sovremennik: this is the break of the “men of the sixties” (Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov, and their followers) from the “men of the forties” (Belinskii, Herzen, and others), whose aesthetic liberalism was not to the taste of the more practicalminded younger generation. Among the most important essays in Russian thought and criticism that appeared for the first time in Sovremennik are Belinskii’s above-mentioned “surveys” of Russian literature. These two articles both supported Sovremennik’s political agenda by stressing the social significance of works of Russian literature, and alarmed the liberal editors by criticizing the “humanist” ideas of Russian Westernizers and insisting on a unique Russian national identity (P. V. Annenkov, 1968). In 1860 “Gamlet i Don Kixot” (“Hamlet and Don Quixote”), Turgenev’s celebrated characterization of Russian literary heroes, appeared. It quickly became a classic treatise on the Russian character. In it Turgenev identifies two primary “types” of hero in Russian literature: the “Hamlet” type, or intellectual, who thinks and reasons but is incapable of action, and the “Don Quixote” type, a dreamer, who alone is capable of effective action, however foolish he at times appears. In Sovremennik’s final years the most important critical reviews to appear were by Dobroliubov, particularly his reading of Turgenev’s novel, “When Will the Real Day Come?,” and his classic characterization of the “illness” of the Russian intelligentsia, “Chto takoe Oblomovshchina?” (1859; “What Is Oblomovitis?”).
Annenkov, P.V., The Extraordinary Decade: Literary Memoirs, edited by Arthur P. Mendel, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968
Berlin, Isaiah, The Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Viking Press, 1978
Birkenmayer, Sigmund S., Nikolaj Nekrasov: His Life and Poetic Art, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1968
Corbet, Charles, Nekrasov, I’homme et le poete, Paris: Institut d’Etudes Slaves, 1948
Granjard, Henri, Ivan Tourguenev et les courants politiques et sociaux de son temps,
Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 1954
Hare, Richard, Pioneers of Russian Social Thought, London: Oxford University Press, 1951
Harper, Kenneth E., “Criticism of the Natural School in the 1840’s,” American Slavic and East European Review 15 (1956): 400–14
Herzen, Alexander, My Past and Thoughts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982 (original translation, 1973)
Lampert, Evgeny, Sons Against Fathers: Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965
Nikitenko, Aleksandr, The Diary of a Russian Censor, abridged, edited, and translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975 (original Russian edition, 1893)
Svyatopolk-Mirsky, Dmitry Petrovich, A History of Russian Literature, edited by Francis J.Whitfield, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949; New York: Knopf, 1964 (original edition, 1926–27)
Venturi, Franco, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960
Woehrlin, William F., Chernyshevskii: The Man and the Journalist, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971
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